- Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
- Psalm 90:1-12
- 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
- Matthew 25:14-30
This week I’m going to start out talking about the portion from the Gospel, and to use the Finnish idiom, I’m going to toss the cat right onto the table: Is the God we worship a radically type-A capitalist who expects all of those who work for him (without any option of changing jobs) to stress themselves out with the task of doubling his money for him every season; and who tosses those who fail to reach such targets into a torture cell of sorts?
In some ways it’s surprising how many preachers are prone to interpret this parable in such a way; in other ways it’s not. There’s a fair amount of accuracy in the cynical old comment that God made man in his own image, and man returned the favor. Many who don’t really care about their fellow man, and who try to give meaning to their own miserable existence by maximizing the amount of control they are able to exercise over others financially, still want to believe that God is on their side, and that the way they abuse others is actually a manifestation of His will. Thus there is a major market for sermons to support such a perspective. What can we say about that? Please be careful about believing that preachers who suck up to this crowd speak for God. Jesus never sucked up to such people; quite the opposite in fact.
When it comes to interpreting Jesus’ parables, we need to start by looking at who the primary subjects are, which characters’ dilemmas the audience is intended to identify with, and what change of perspective Jesus is trying to lead them towards. We need to be careful about drawing conclusions about God, or life in general, from Jesus’ parables that go beyond that. For a few examples to make this principle clear:
- When Jesus compares the applicability of putting his message into the Pharisees’ ritual format to putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt. 9:17), this does not mean that his message is something to get drunk on.
- When Jesus sends out his disciples on their first missionary trip he says that in different ways they are to be like sheep, snakes and doves all at the same time (Mt. 10:16). He did not, however, expect them to wear wool, scales and/or feathers as part of their mission.
- If you think that is ridiculous, check out the discussion in Matthew 16 about bread: Jesus had to specifically tell his disciples, after comparing the Pharisees’ teaching to yeast, that no, he was not hinting that they should have packed a bigger sandwich lunch for the day!
- Taking one last example of this principle from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, in the parable of the persistent widow, while Jesus was encouraging his followers to be more like the widow, he is not implying that God is like a corrupt judge who doesn’t “fear God or respect anyone.”
So by the same token, no, Jesus is not saying that God is like a radically capitalist slave-master.
But let’s turn to the positive here: rather than focusing on what Jesus was not trying to say, let’s consider what Jesus actually was saying, or what Matthew is presenting as Jesus’ message in this parable.
One expression somewhat unique to the Gospel of Matthew is that he talks a lot about people who are being punished ending up in a place where they are “gnashing their teeth.” The Greek word for “gnashing” here, for what different it makes, is βρυγμος. This word is used 7 times in the whole Bible: 6 in Matthew and 1 in Luke. Given that Luke confesses in the introduction to his Gospel (1:3) to borrowing from other sources, we can be pretty confident in saying that this is something he borrowed from Matthew. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” then is very much Matthew’s own thing.
So who are Matthew’s tooth gnashers? It’s actually not such a long list:
– Jews who are replaced by Gentiles in the great heavenly reward banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: Mt. 8:11-12 (also referred to in Lk.13:28)
– Evil doers to be tossed into fire by the angels, as part of the explanations of two parables in Matthew 13
– The random guest at the king’s son’s wedding who came in a t-shirt and cut-offs (or some equivalent of their time) rather than dressing for the occasion: Mt. 22:13
– The overseer slave who got drunk and abusive while his master was gone and there was no one there to check up on him: Mt. 24: 51
– And then from today’s reading, in verse 30.
So this verse actually draws to a close Matthew’s summary of Jesus teachings about those who will be grinding their teeth because of God’s punishment on them. One this involves a brutal dismemberment; two times, a fiery furnace; and three times – including today’s passage – “outer darkness.” And what have the respective offenders done to deserve this? In the brutal dismemberment case – the end of chapter 24 – it was for not only misappropriating corporate resources, but for grossly abusing fellow workers. In the fiery furnace cases, from chapter 13, the offenders had tried to secretly blend in among genuine believers and share their position without being noticed. The “outer darkness” cases all relate to basic disrespect towards God as their benefactor. In chapter 8 this follows through on the discussion regarding the strong faith that a Roman centurion had in Jesus’ power, that none of the Jews came close to appreciating in the same way. Then with the wedding feast parable in chapter 22 we have a fellow who knew he was getting an honor far beyond what he deserved, but he didn’t bother to show any appreciation for the opportunity. The parable of the talents here is following through on that same line then.
The main focus of this parable is on the fellow who ends up being punished, and the first thing we find out about him is that he’s not really the sharpest knife in the drawer: in verse 15 their master gave out responsibilities according to what he knew about his workers’ abilities, and for this fellow to get so much less than the others simply shows that the master didn’t really expect much of him. This was more an exercise in giving the worker who hadn’t actually been doing so well another opportunity to prove himself; and like the sleazy wedding guest, this worker didn’t really seem to appreciate the opportunity.
The next thing we notice is that when reporting time comes around this lazy waste of space tries to cover up the fact that he hadn’t even tried to get anything done with a classic bit of BSing the boss: “You are such a tough, scary guy that I couldn’t imagine taking a risk of losing your investment, so…” The boss had to point out to him that back then there were in fact some functionally zero-risk investments available; you just had to pay a slight bit of attention to them. By trying to BS the boss this lazy fellow was actually making things worse for himself: It’s one thing not to do the job you were hired to do; it’s quite another to try to convince the boss that your laziness was an exercise in good faith!
I’ve often wanted to get one of those t-shirts which says, “You can’t fire me. Slaves have to be SOLD!” This story, however, somewhat disproves that rule. This effectively useless slave was not worth trying to sell, so his punishment was basically to be tossed out onto the street without any provision to feed or protect himself. He was simply fired. Compared to that, for this particular fellow, being a slave was actually a pretty good deal. But no matter how much bawling and tooth-gnashing he might try to do, he wasn’t going to be taken back into this master’s service.
So who is Jesus addressing this parable to? It is fairly clearly the same audience as for the parable of the torch-bearing girls at the wedding that went before it, and those being punished in each story have things in common: the ditzy girls who were supposed to help provide a torchlight escort for the bridal couple to their new home, but who couldn’t be bothered to bring along enough lamp oil to do the job, were presumably (as a matter of the Jewish tradition of the time) part of the bridegroom’s clan, so they didn’t figure that they were responsible for actually doing anything beyond that. In the parable of the talents the person being punished is someone who assumes that he is an insider – the lowest possible ranking insider, but still an insider – and as such he felt like he had nothing to lose. Therefor he didn’t really even bother to try to do the job he has been assigned to take care of.
So who were the religious insiders of Jesus’ time who were officially supposed to be serving God semi-professionally, but in practice weren’t even trying? The implication here is that Jesus is once again talking about the Pharisees, and other assorted bureaucrats of the Jewish religious establishment that were always milling around Harod’s temple at the time. A major running theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel is how the temple system of Jesus’ time, impressive as it may have seemed to some, was entirely doomed. As we now well know, within 40 years of Jesus’ death, not one stone of the temple was left standing on top of the one it had been supported by when Jesus was teaching next to it.
The irony with which Jesus spoke in this parable was particularly biting because these religious bureaucrats considered the core essence of their jobs to be keeping anything from changing – to keep the one little talent that they had been given from ever getting moved around or exchanged for some other system of value. But by preserving this “coin” for its own sake, they were preventing it from being used to do any good, and from increasing in value through a more open sort of interaction.
But let’s leave them aside these specific historical characters for the moment. The lesson here is not about how evil the Jews were; but about how important it is for us to appreciate the mercy God has bestowed upon us in the form of the opportunities he has given us, and for us to take these opportunities seriously in terms of participating in the building of God’s Kingdom. And how do we participate in the building of this kingdom? By taking the value of the mercy that we have received seriously, and putting some serious effort into paying it forward to all those whom God also loves, and who need His mercy as much as we did when Christ found us. It is this, not a capacity to make a show of how self-righteousness we can be, that God is expecting of us.
Our other passages of the day relate to how fleeting the rest of human life really is, and how we can never be sure when we will be standing before God to give an account of what we have done with the great gift of life that he has given us. (Cue up the 1970s classic rock hit, “Dust in the Wind.”) There is much to be said for having an awareness of death guiding our lives. Let us live then for what is truly important: for having a purpose that transcends the limits of our own little lives – not by trying to keep some tradition that we have been given from changing, but by putting what we have been given to full use at what we know our master truly values.
Let us pray.